Learning from Germany in forging a more effective criminal justice system for young adults
The T2A Alliance has put together a 10-step plan to reduce the number of young adults in the criminal justice system.
Pathways From Crime begins at general policing and arrest through to successful resettlement, and is essential reading for anyone working with young people in the criminal justice system. Young people are over-represented in the criminal justice system; 18- to 25-year-olds make up less than 10% of the population yet account for more than one-third of all those sentenced to prison each year; one-third of those starting a community sentence; and one-third of the probation services caseload.
The alliance is a coalition of 12 leading criminal justice, health and youth organisations, including the Howard League. We have a legal helpline available to young people in prison to call and the sheer number who do so demonstrates that the needs of people aged 18 to 24 in custody are many, but rarely met. The Howard League for Penal Reform is committed to improving the care and treatment of young adults in custody and on release. We welcome this report.
The plan recommends that the UK adopts a German-style approach to sentencing for young people to halt the number entering prison. Germany sentences young adults under either juvenile or adult law based on an assessment of a young adult’s maturity. The courts have a choice based on the person they see before them.
Here, the Crown Prosecution Service is responsible for making the decision about whether to charge someone with an offence, and what level of charge to make. The public interest test remains central to the CPS Code of Conduct, and prosecutors are guided to take into account a non-exhaustive list of ‘factors tending against prosecution’, including youthfulness, learning difficulties and mental health problems.
The inclusion of ‘lack of maturity’ as a mitigating factor should be extended to the CPS public interest test, which could result in better-informed decision-making on charging decisions for offences committed by young adults. In Germany this is common practice: courts can choose to try young adults up to the age of 21 under juvenile law if the defendant is immature, or the circumstances of the offence are more typical of youth crime.
Although no one would argue that someone’s lack of maturity is an excuse for illegal behaviour, it is certainly a factor and should be accorded due weight in mitigation. Emotional and psychological maturity should be taken into account for those accused of breaking the law in the same way as other mitigating factors.
We all know of people the same age who appear as though they could be a decade apart. There are young people who are not emotionally mature or articulate and who cannot put forward their case in court. There are others who may be very mature, who can speak passionately and eloquently, and will present their case excellently. Our inflexible system does not account for someone’s emotional age as well as physical maturity.
It is no coincidence that three out of four young adults leaving prison are reconvicted within a year. Children, who grow up in chaotic environments let down by their families and the state, often find the safety net they have is pulled away the minute they turn 18. Young adult men are at the peak age of offending, have one of the highest rates of re-offending, and are at a crucial moment in their personal development. A lack of coordination and proper support means that precious resources are wasted on ineffective responses, as are opportunities to help young people desist from crime.
A blanket approach to all offenders over 18 is clearly failing. This report makes clear that better responses are already available and, if adopted more widely, could drastically improve how we approach young adult crime.
The report offers service providers, practitioners and commissioners working at every stage of the justice process evidence-based ways in which they can deliver more effective approaches for young adults. Importantly, all the recommendations are achievable now, without the need for legislative change.
Andrew Neilson is director of campaigns at the Howard League